The Windham Chamber Singers performing at the International Youth and Music Festival in Vienna, Austria, in 1996. The group went on to win the Prize of Vienna. Contributed / Richard Nickerson

It’s hard to believe it’s been almost 30 years since the Windham Chamber Singers made history by winning the Prize of Vienna at the 25th International Youth and Music Festival in Austria. It was an exciting time for the students and their conductor Richard Nickerson, and one that will be long-remembered by the Windham community.

It all began when Nickerson received an invitation to attend the event. He set to work to try to determine how exactly to get the group there to take part in this wonderful educational opportunity.

Nickerson had been talking with Roy Clark at Pine Point Records about recording a Christmas CD the singers could give to their families and friends as holiday gifts. What if they expanded upon the gift idea and made 10,000 of the CDs and sold them throughout the community? The two were convinced that if they could create a product that was commercially sound and widely appealing, they could raise the $80,000 needed to get the group to the competition.

The hills were alive with the sound of the Windham Chamber Singers during their 1996 trip to Austria. Contributed / Richard Nickerson

And so it began, and then, remarkably, magic happened. The whole town came together with an incredible spirit of community and wholeheartedly got behind the project. CDs were sold at several local businesses and retail stores. Students and teachers made  individual sales. Parents put up a kiosk in the Maine Mall. Songs were getting radio play and the story was picked up by the media and was seen on local television news stations.

When all was said and done, the group had raised in excess of their $80,000 goal. The Windham Chamber Singers were ready to take that trip of a lifetime.

Clark and his wife Maria were asked to be chaperones for the event, as Roy would act as the group’s pianist at the Vienna competition. They both have distinct memories of their time in Austria. “As part of the students’ educational experience, we all went to the Dachau Concentration Camp Memorial Site,” Maria recalled. “It was a very emotional experience for everyone. The bus was very quiet on the way back to the hotel.” Roy recalled an impromptu performance at the Hofbrauhaus in Munich and also performing for the burgermeister, or mayor, in a small village.


Travis Sparks was a Windham High School senior in 1996 and a member of the Chamber Singers. “Personally, the trip to Austria was the exclamation point on my high school experience and my 3½ years of singing with the group,” he said. “A favorite memory of mine on the trip was a small town south of Vienna called Bad Schonau. We did an unplanned performance there, just a quick song for ourselves, in a medieval church built between 1200 and 1250 where they had recently uncovered 14th-century frescoes decorating the walls.”

Haley Pal, a Windham resident and active member of the Windham Historical Society, can be contacted at

The trip also gave the singers a taste of Austrian food which was much different than the food they were accustomed to in the U.S. “They couldn’t wait to get to the McDonald’s at the airport,” Maria Clark explained with a laugh.

For Nickerson, “the trip was a life-changing experience.

“It brought our program to a new level and has helped us to become the group we are today. I’ve been back to Austria many times since then and it always brings back wonderful memories of that special time,” he said.

When the group returned to Maine, arriving at 2 a.m., “we were greeted at the airport by half the town of Windham,” Nickerson recalled.

“I’ve never experienced such a sense of community pride. It was a testament to the people of our town.”

Since 1996, the group has had many more adventures. They have performed on the stage at Carnegie Hall and at St. Patrick’s Cathedral in New York City. They have accompanied such renowned singers as Josh Groban and the Celtic Tenors. They have been recognized by “NBC Nightly News” and appeared on both “CBS This Morning” and the “Today” show. All are great accomplishments. But for those who took part in that initial trip to Vienna, there is a lifetime memory that will always be cherished. They were there at the very beginning when a whole town got behind a group of young people and made a very special dream come true.

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